This was Marx’s dream of a Golden Age when “the workers” would invert the pyramid and put things right. To others it is a nightmare of “smash and grab”, with Zimbabwe-esque images.
As a university student, Marx was influenced by the great philosopher Hegel. So when Marx went from Germany to London, where writing his controversial Das Kapital would be safer, his basic framework was that to every thesis there is an antithesis, from which emerges a synthesis. To him, the emergence of a “dictatorship of the proletariat” was not the journey but the destination. That would be the synthesis.
But relatively mild, intellectual Marx could not imagine the violent extremes to which Lenin, Stalin and Mao would take the “antithesis” on the road to the Golden Age, when the historically disadvantaged would end up on top of their erstwhile oppressors.
Marx had a social conscience which despised Inequality. Many of us share his dislike of the uneven distribution of wealth in South Africa today. Even those of us who are not Marxists. We also have an upper crust of very wealthy people, some urban (mine and factory owners) and some rural (farmers or boers). We also have a rising middle class or “bourgeoisie” and it is also very urban (i.e. township).
Europe was emerging from a thousand years of feudalism, whose vestiges remained. We also have a social fabric that includes our cherished tribal customs and structures.
Feudalism was strange. When two kings from the tribes of Europe went to war, you would find their subordinates out there on the battlefield fighting one another, while the respective aristocracies looked on from a relatively safe distance. When one team of serfs was defeated, the winning king would take the losing aristocracy captive. But the barons (i.e. landowners) did not kill one another off. Because they were so outnumbered by the armed peasants, they had a code of chivalry to keep that tall feudal hierarchy intact. It was a pyramid with only a few at the top, so they imprisoned them or changed the flags flying on the castles - but they would never tamper with the class system.
Marx came to hate the urbanized version of this class system with massively rich “capitalists” and dirt poor factory workers living in abysmal conditions. But he was not the first one to take it on.
Genghis Khan started as a poor boy called Temugen. In Mongolia there was not even a city – he would later build a capital city with the tribute paid to him from across Asia and parts of Europe. They were nomadic, pastoral clans. Life was lived at subsistence level – combining ranching and raiding. To get a wife you had to raid another kraal and steal one by force. He did that, only to be raided and lose her. But he had grown to like her, so with the help of a relative who was more powerful than he was, he mounted another raid to re-capture her.
During these raids he noticed one thing. Once one side won the fighting and got the spoils, the men on the losing side would fade away into the bundu. He realized that they would live to fight another day, and decided from then on to chase them down and kill them. This was his first stroke of military genius. He went from strength to strength and formed an army. They started moving across borders and raiding cities. No conqueror in history built more bridges than Ghengis Khan – because he needed to move his cavalry around from city to city, from one raid to the next, as he expanded his empire.
He was relentless. When he defeated a city he would do the unthinkable – kill off all the aristocracy. That meant that generations would pass before it could organise a counter-insurgency. He would find the technocrats first (like architects and engineers) and spare them, because he needed them for military innovation. He also spared those who spoke many languages – he would need them as translators to administer his growing empire. The vassals left had to send annual tribute to Mongolia.
Ghengis Khan invented the Post Office to administer his empire which covered ten time zones. He invented paper money to facilitate moving wealth around. He invented the cannon (forerunner of the missile) by combining gunpowder from China with fire-throwing from Persia with iron foundry technology from Europe. Centuries later, the “Second World” of communism would rule that same vast area.
This was long before Lenin, but what happened to the Romanovs after the Russian Revolution was standard practice for Ghengis Khan. The problem with Marxism per se is that it could diagnose what ailed society, and prophesy what the destination would be, but it could not map the journey as well. That is why Marxist-Leninism exists. Because only a ruthless dictator like Lenin could move from the thesis of feudalism towards the synthesis of the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”. By pushing that same vast continent into the “antithesis”.
Let’s be honest, to reach that collective dream (or nightmare), you needed ruthless dictators like Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. The road to that Golden Age did not pass through Democracy. Peasants were poor but they subscribed to Feudal values, so between 20 and 30 million of them were left to starve by Lenin, as he re-jigged agriculture into State Farms. Whereas Mao realized the folly to food security of eliminating peasants, so he spared them… subjecting them instead to the Cultural Revolution.
I wonder sometimes if the SACP, the EFF and the BFLF movements have forgotten why we have a First World and a Third World today, but no Second World? It’s gone, because Communism failed. No one in their right mind wants it back.
So it is reassuring to hear the new President Ramaphosa assuring us that there will be no smash-and-grab. Land reform is an imperative, but making it happen should not pit our Bolsheviks against our Romanovs, so to speak. That is a lose-lose scenario. We need to find a win-win scenario.
Certainly the “synthesis” of land reform in South Africa must be that land be re-distributed to help reduce the high level inequality. We do need to level the playing field. But we need to do so democratically and in a way that will not undermine food security.
To change the constitution - to allow expropriation of land without compensation - will require a two-thirds majority. We are just emerging from the nightmare of a super-presidency that used Parliament as a rubber stamp. Surely part of “Ramaphoria” must be to take the recommendations of the Slabbert Commission seriously and unleash MPs to vote as representatives of a constituency, and/or by their conscience? If so, maybe in the context of a Secret Vote, are all the MPs of the ANC going to support changing the Constitution? What about Nene and Gordhan, for starters? It is very clear that “unity” is the ANC’s word for “gridlock” meaning that there are really two (or more) ANCs. I have my doubts that the EFF will find it easy to change the Constitution.
On the other hand, the EFF deserves a lot of credit for its professional and democratic approach. It has distinguished itself in Parliament in recent years, and when it calls for “land invasions” it targets unproductive land. It avoids direct confrontation with boers who are notoriously good farmers. The EFF is not Boko Haram and needs to be treated with due respect. It has a small but vocal core of democratically-elected MPs, which is likely to grow in the next election.
Personally I do not regard expropriation without compensation as the “antithesis” to apartheid that we need to pass through on the road to some future “synthesis”. To me it is closer to the synthesis, the destination. Possibly we will look back on State Capture some day as the “antithesis” – when Democracy was all but suspended by a Cabal of the rich and powerful, bent on increasing their own political and economic fortunes behind a smoke-screen of Socialist jargon. We have seen what that same strategy did to Venezuela, but South Africa’s “citizen revolt” in recent years has mitigated the damages.
Land reform strategies are emerging – like the Solms Delta model in the Cape; like the more urban Abahlali baseMjondolo approach in Durban; like the “land rent” alternative to taxation proposed by Stephens Meintjes and Michael Jacques; and others. These are all very different. Some are but variations of a system that still espouses “private property”. Others are based on a different assumption (like Marx’s) that all land belongs to the State.
Then there are those who believe that the land belongs to God. And that by the principle of “Jubilee”, he ordained that once-in-a-lifetime (i.e. every 50 years) there must be a major leveling of the playing field. This is a family-based logic – that we are ALL citizens in one and the same nation. So from time to time, it is our privilege to help those who have become economically inactive. They can return to their roots and start over again. For unless we are ALL economically active, we regress to a configuration where more people are receiving monthly social grants than are paying taxes into the fiscus. That is un-sustainable.
So unproductive land does need to be re-distributed to unproductive people so that they can regain their dignity by producing and paying taxes instead of collecting unemployment insurance. Whether we believe in private ownership of property, or that the State owns the land, or that God owns it, we need to engage democratically and to find a solution SOON.
* Stephens is the executive director at the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership. He writes in his personal capacity.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.